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September 19, 2011
Justin Verlander is in that career sweet spot—he's young enough to pump 100-mph gas, old enough to know when to throttle back. The result: a season MVP voters can't ignore
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September 19, 2011

A Pitcher In His Prime

Justin Verlander is in that career sweet spot—he's young enough to pump 100-mph gas, old enough to know when to throttle back. The result: a season MVP voters can't ignore

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Let's give credit where it's due," Jim Leyland said on Sept. 2, after he won his 500th game as the manager of the Tigers. "Justin Verlander's got 104 of those." It sounded, at first, like another of the droll bons mots that the 66-year-old Leyland dispenses daily, with a Marlboro Red flaming in his right hand and his stockinged feet propped up on his desk, to the delight of the beat writers in his office—nuggets of wisdom to which the skipper usually appends, "Now, that's just what I think." In this case, though, there was nothing wry or opinionated about Leyland's observation. A check of the records showed that the 28-year-old Verlander, whose rookie season, 2006, coincided with his manager's first in Detroit, had been the winning pitcher in precisely 104 of those 500 victories. Leyland was simply stating a fact.

For most of his major league career, Verlander has excelled at winning games. He has won at least 17 in five of his six full seasons, the only exception coming in 2008 ("A horrible season," he says), when he went 11--17. Between 2006 and last season, only CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay had more victories than Verlander's 84. Never before, however, has Verlander won as consistently as he has in 2011. His game log looks like a feverish attempt to type a Web address on a keyboard with sticky keys. wwwwwww reads Verlander's game log from May 29 to June 30. wwwwwwwwww it reads from July 21 to Sept. 7.

Through Sunday, Verlander's record was 22--5, and with three starts remaining, he had a chance of becoming the first 25-game winner since Bob Welch of the A's went 27--6 in 1990. In recent years the simple statistic of the win—once the be-all and end-all for starters—has become a despised metric among the game's staterati, due to its reliance on a starter's offense to score and on his bullpen to hold leads. Its marginalization as a measure of performance was confirmed last season when the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, deservedly, won the AL Cy Young Award despite a record of 13--12.

Still, reaching the 20-win mark says something; of the 34 pitchers who have won 20 in the past decade, just one, the Yankees' Andy Pettitte in 2003, did so with an ERA above 4.00. "I understand all the arguments," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski says. "The one thing I would always debate is that with a starting pitcher, winning games is extremely important. I've seen guys that pitch well, and they're very talented, with good-looking stats, but if their team scores three for them, they'll give up four. If their team scores two, they give up three."

The fact is that Verlander's gaudy win total has little to do with the support of his teammates. A starter relies less on his offense when he does not require it to score much, and Verlander was at week's end tied with the Angels' Jered Weaver for the lowest ERA (2.44) in the AL. A starter's fate is less dependent on his bullpen when he pitches deep into games, and Verlander led the AL in innings pitched; he is the eighth pitcher since 1920 to last at least six innings in each of his first 31 starts in a season. Moreover, among the majors' 101 qualified starters, he was first in strikeouts (232), first in WHIP (0.91) and first in batting average against (.191).

In other words, Verlander is having a season to please old-school and new-school number crunchers alike—the result, he says, of a long accumulation of knowledge that has suddenly all clicked into place. "It's hard for me to put a finger on what I know, but it's there," he says. "Time. Experience of pitching at this level for a while now. You log it all away, and it opens up a new game to you, almost." This is the sound of a gifted athlete who has just entered his prime.

The 6'5" Verlander's ability to throw a fastball in excess of 100 miles per hour got him drafted by the Tigers second overall out of Old Dominion in 2004, but his recently acquired sense of the optimal moments to throw that pitch has made him the game's premier starter. That his average fastball has slightly decreased in velocity this season, from 95.4 mph to 95.0, is deceiving, explains Leyland. "He's figured out you don't have to go all out, helter-skelter, from pitch one," Leyland says. "If you throw the ball down and away, 92 miles an hour, you'll get a lot of outs."

"If he wanted, he could throw 100 all game," says Verlander's regular catcher, Alex Avila. "He's done that before, and by the sixth inning he's got 100 pitches. Maybe not coming out full throttle from the beginning allows him to get those one-, two-pitch outs, have a little more command, throw a few more strikes."

This season, Verlander has rarely thrown a pitch that reaches the mid-90s in a game's first few innings, saving his triple-digit heat for when it's required. The result is that a pitcher who not so long ago made Little Leaguers in Goochland, Va., cry in the batter's box—not because he threw so hard, but so wildly—is now eighth in the AL in walks per nine innings (2.0, the lowest of his career), allowing him to go deeper into games and to better concentrate on commanding his curveball and his changeup. "I think he's throwing everything for strikes now," says veteran Indians slugger Jim Thome. More than that, the threat of Verlander's best fastball is now as effective as its actual deployment, explains White Sox slugger Paul Konerko. "I think when a guy is throwing from the mid-90s to upper 90s, most hitters are going to gear up for that," says Konerko. "So if he gets anything else over the plate or remotely close, he's going to get a lot of bad swings."

Verlander's maturation will make him this year's AL CY Young winner; that is no longer a matter of debate. The question is whether he will become the first pitcher since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 to be named Most Valuable Player. In recent decades voters have preferred everyday players, a view encapsulated by Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who says, "There is an MVP for pitchers: It's called the Cy Young Award." That preference led to the Red Sox' Pedro Martinez finishing a close second to Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez in the 1999 AL balloting, despite the fact that Martinez ranked first in the all-encompassing Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic.

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